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GIFFORDS, Gabrielle

GIFFORDS, Gabrielle
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1970–

Biography

Gabrielle Giffords, a rising star in the House Democratic Caucus, had her career tragically and prematurely cut short when she was nearly killed during an attempted assassination at a constituent event in Arizona. An advocate for border security, alternative energy development, and improved veterans’ benefits, Giffords took pride in her centrist record first in the Arizona legislature and then in Congress. “Always I fought for what I thought was right,” she once said. “But never did I question the character of those with whom I disagreed. Never did I let pass an opportunity to join hands with someone just because he or she held different beliefs. In public service, I found a venue for my pursuit of a stronger America—by ensuring the safety and security of all Americans, by producing clean energy here at home instead of importing oil from abroad, and by honoring our brave men and women in uniform with the benefits they earned.”1

A third-generation Arizonan, Gabrielle Dee (Gabby) Giffords was born on June 8, 1970, in Tucson, Arizona, the youngest child of Spencer and Gloria Giffords. Giffords has an older sister, Melissa, and an older half-brother, Alejandro. She graduated from Tucson’s University High School in 1988 and attended Scripps College in Claremont, California, where she graduated with a double major in Latin American studies and sociology in 1993. After studying for a year in Chihuahua, Mexico, on a J. William Fulbright Scholarship, Giffords earned a master’s degree in urban planning from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1996. She then worked for six months at a New York consultancy before returning to Tucson to run her family’s tire business, which her grandfather founded in 1949. While leading the business for four years, Giffords focused on customer service. “I never thought I’d like [the job] as much as I do,” she said at the time. “I didn’t know what to expect. My vision [for the company] is providing service I haven’t seen provided before.”2 Economic pressure forced Giffords to consolidate the tire business into a commercial property management firm in 2000, which she helped manage until 2007.3 In November 2007, Giffords married Mark Kelly, a Navy pilot and astronaut, whom she met during a 2003 trip to China.4

Giffords, who first sought elected office in 2000, said she entered politics after frustrations at her tire business. She said job applicants lacked the skills to fill out forms properly, and she had difficulty finding help for an employee with a mental illness. “Why wring your hands when you can fix the tractor?” Giffords asked.5 Giffords spent a single term in the Arizona state house and then won election to the state senate in 2002 with more than 74 percent of the vote—becoming the youngest woman ever elected to that chamber.6 She won re-election in 2004. In the state senate, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council named Giffords one of the “100 New Democrats to Watch” in 2003, and in 2005 the Aspen Institute made her part of its inaugural class of Aspen-Rodel fellows, a leadership program for elected officials under the age of 50.7

When 11-term Republican Representative James Thomas Kolbe announced his retirement in late 2005, Giffords resigned from the state senate to run for the open seat, which encompassed parts of Tucson and the southeastern corner of Arizona. Calling Kolbe’s retirement a “window of opportunity” for a “pro-business Democrat,” Giffords was an early Democratic frontrunner.8 She faced five opponents in the Democratic primary, including a well-known former local news anchor. Immigration, education, health care, and ethics issues all played prominent roles in the campaign, despite little policy disagreement among the top Democratic contenders.9 Giffords easily won the primary with 54 percent of the vote, defeating her nearest opponent by more than 23 points.10 In the general election, she faced Republican Randy Graf, a staunch immigration opponent, who had challenged Kolbe in the 2004 Republican primary. Giffords defeated Graf with 54 percent of the vote during an election that saw Democrats return to the majority for the first time in a dozen years.11

In the 110th Congress (2007–2009), Giffords served on the Armed Services; Foreign Affairs; and Science and Technology Committees. She held those three assignments for the duration of her career in Congress. She also joined the Blue Dog Coalition, which sought to limit and target federal spending. National Public Radio profiled Giffords’s first term with segments detailing life as a freshman legislator. “[M]y district, southern Arizona and other bordering states, are shouldering the burden of what is a national crisis. The federal government has decided not to respond year after year after year,” she said during a segment on immigration.12 Giffords, who made immigration the subject of her first speech on the House Floor, supported comprehensive immigration reform and border security measure, including high-tech radar and drone patrols as well as sanctions for those who employ undocumented workers.13 A few years later, in 2012, Giffords’s Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act became law. The legislation empowered federal security officials to crack down on smuggling operations that used new aviation technology.14

Giffords easily won re-election in 2008 with nearly 55 percent of the vote.15 During the 111th Congress (2009–2011), Giffords chaired the Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, where she worked on alternative energy policy. In the 111th Congress, her Solar Technology Roadmap Act passed the House and was the subject of hearings in the Senate. The bill laid out a comprehensive outline to coordinate federal policy with the needs of the domestic solar industry, offering more resources and research into new technologies.16

On national issues, Giffords largely supported the policies of the Barack Obama administration, voting for the Affordable Care Act, for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to allow gay servicemembers to serve openly in the Armed Forces, for the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and for a comprehensive immigration plan.17

In the 2010 general election, Giffords faced Jesse Kelly, who had the support of the Tea Party movement favoring lower taxes. In a year in which Democrats lost the House majority, Giffords emerged with a 49-to-47 percent victory—the narrowest election of her career. “We won because Democrats, Republicans and Independents pulled together in our campaign to focus on the real solutions to the obstacles that we face,” Giffords said after the victory.18

On January 8, 2011, three days into the 112th Congress (2011–2013), Giffords was holding a “Congress on Your Corner” event outside a Tucson grocery store. During the meet-and-greet with constituents, a gunman shot Giffords in the head and killed six others, including a federal judge and one of Giffords’s aides. Thirteen others were injured. Giffords, gravely wounded, barely survived.19 Giffords made an astonishing recovery despite the severity of her injuries.20 She saw her husband launch into space in May, and she returned to the House to vote on a debt ceiling bill in August. To focus more fully on her recovery, Giffords stepped down from the House on January 25, 2012.21

“The only way I ever served my district in Congress was by giving 100 percent,” she said in her resignation letter. “This past year, that’s what I have given to my recovery. Thank you for your patience. From my first steps and first words after being shot to my current physical and speech therapy, I have given all of myself to being able to walk back onto the House floor this year to represent Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District. However, today I know that now is not the time. I have more work to do on my recovery before I can again serve in elected office. . . . Everyday, I am working hard. I will recover and will return, and we will work together again, for Arizona and for all Americans.”22

Since leaving Congress, Giffords and her husband established Americans for Responsible Solutions to combat gun violence. In 2016 their organization joined the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and was renamed Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence.23

Footnotes

1Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 January 2012): H170.

2Vera Fedchenko, "27–Year–Old Charts Ariz. Firm's Course," 16 February 1998, Tire Business: 1.

3“Gabrielle Giffords,” Current Biography, 2012 (New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 2012): 22; Sheryl Gay Stolberg and William Yardley, “For Giffords, Tucson Roots Shaped Views,” 14 January 2011, New York Times, https://www. nytimes.com/2011/01/15/us/15profile.html.

4Judith Anderson, “Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly,” 2 December 2007, New York Times: 19; Cathalena E. Burch, “Down-to-Earth, Yet Astronomical,” 11 November 2007, Arizona Daily Star: n.p

5Carl Weiser, "Desire for Change Spurs Political Careers," 16 July 2004, Gannett News Service: n.p.

6Current Biography, 2012: 22.

7“Star Watch,” 16 September 2003, Richmond Times Dispatch: A12; The Aspen Institute, “Aspen Institute-Rodell Fellowship Inaugural Class,” accessed 30 March 2020, https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/rodel-fellowshipspublic-leadership/inaugural-class.

8Gregory L. Giroux, "Democrats See ‘Window of Opportunity' in Arizona with Kolbe Retirement," 2 December 2005, Congressional Quarterly Today: n.p. Arthur H. Rotstein, "Tucson Democrat Resigns to Seek Seat Kolbe is Vacating," 1 December 2005, Associated Press.

9Stephen Dinan, "Arizona Voters Driven by Border; GOP on Defense in 3 Key Contests," 6 September 2006, Washington Times: A01.

10Arizona secretary of state, “State of Arizona Official Canvass, 2006 Primary Election, September 12, 2006,” accessed 6 March 2020, https://apps.azsos. gov/election/2006/Primary/Canvass2006PE.pdf.

11Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

12“Bipartisan Immigration Bill Faces Bipartisan Critics,” 22 May 2007, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, https://www.npr.org/templates/ story/story.php?storyId=10330378. For the full list of segments, see “Following Freshman Representatives,” All Things Considered, National Public Radio, https://www.npr.org/series/12745531/following-freshmenrepresentatives.

13Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 1st sess. (12 January 2007): H492.

14Ultralight Aircraft Smuggling Prevention Act of 2012, PL 112-93, 126 Stat. 8 (2012).

15"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."

16Solar Technology Roadmap Act, H.R. 3585, 111th Cong. (2011); House Committee on Science and Technology, Solar Technology Roadmap Act, 111th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 302 (2009): 7–9; Politics in America, 2010 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2009): 47.

17Greg McCune, “Rep. Giffords A Leading Voice in Immigration Debate,” 8 January 2011, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usashooting-giffords/rep-giffords-a-leading-voice-in-immigration-debateidUSTRE7072HU20110108; Molly Ball, “Driven, Gracious, Giffords a Rising Star,” 8 January 2011, Politico, https://www.politico.com/ story/2011/01/driven-gracious-giffords-a-rising-star-047254; Jim Nintzel, “Over and Out? CD8: Asking and Telling About ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” 17 June 2010, Tucson Weekly, https://www.tucsonweekly.com/tucson/over-andout/Content?oid=2034015.

18Bob Christie, “Rep. Giffords Wins Re-Election in AZ 8th District,” 6 November 2010, Associated Press.

19Current Biography, 2012: 25.

20Denise Grady, "Doctors Detail Giffords's Progress," 12 March 2011, New York Times: A13.

21Jennifer Steinhauer, “For Giffords, House Comeback Is One Too Many,” 23 January 2012, New York Times: A1; Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 January 2012): H301–309.

22Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 2nd sess. (25 January 2012): H170–171.

23“History,” Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, accessed 6 March 2020, https://giffords.org/about/history/.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of Arizona
Special Collections

Tucson, AZ
Papers: ca. 1995-2012, 70 linear feet. This collection contains the political papers of Gabrielle Giffords that document her career as a member of the United States House of Representatives from 2007-2012 as well as the shooting at Giffords’ “Congress on your Corner” event on January 8, 2011. It is organized into 3 subgroups with the bulk of the collection found in the committee files as well as in materials related to the January 8th, 2011 Tucson, Arizona shooting. The collection also contains correspondence, legislative files, voting records, subject files, photographs and audio visual materials. This collection also contains a substantial amount of electronic records. The collection is currently closed but researchers can contact an archivist regarding access.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Giffords, Gabrielle., Mark Kelly, and Jeffrey Zaslow. Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope. New York: Scribner, 2011.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Armed Services
  • House Committee - Foreign Affairs
  • House Committee - Science and Technology
    • Space and Aeronautics - Chair
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